Dark Side of E-waste Recycling: Video Notes

The Circuit Documentary

  • BAN: Basel Action Network, non profit group dedicated to tracking the e-waste trade around the world.
  • American recyclers still export a lot of e-waste to developing nation, which isn’t illegal but is considered bad practice
  • BAN pretends to drop off a regular electronic but it has a tracking device in it.
  • Earth Eye – to track where the electronics end up. It ends up in other countries (i.e. Hong Kong) in remote places. Through the satellite imagery you can see a black pond that is most likely the sludge from burning the materials.
  • Hong Kong was a destination for e-waste shipments, where workers take apart the electronics in hazardous and unsafe ways.
    • “Ideally, electronics are broken down professionally, carefully discarded with safety in mind. Instead, unqualified laborers can poison their towns, develop cancer, and damage their nervous systems. Globally, the human and environmental toll of the work is impossible to calculate.”
  • Exporting electronics is not illegal in US, but BAN has sent some unethical electronic recyclers to prison.
  • Proper recycling is more expensive but doable
  • Steps that e-waste recycler ‘Total Reclaim’ claimed to take:
    • Products that could be reused: wipe hard drives and refurbish
    • Products that are at the end-of-use: dismantle the items.
      • for computers: shred the hard drive, take out the lithium-ion batteries, separate the rest of the materials for buyers.
      • steel, aluminum, precious metals go to metal refiners
      • assembly line workers pick through the larger pieces and sort the plastics
  • “The United States is taking in — and throwing out — an astonishing number of devices every year: millions of tons of televisions, phones, computers, appliances. Americans rarely see the aftermath.”
  • Ex of human health effects: cathode-ray tubes contain lead which can poison; cadmium used in batteries and circuit boards linked to skeletal deformities in animals; mercury in lcd monitors which can damage a person’s nervous system
  • Basel Convention in 1989 was set up to regulate the export of hazardous materials. The convention requires countries to consent before being sent the hazardous waste
  • “Environmental activists pushed for an amendment to the convention that would fully ban some of the world’s richest countries from sending their electronics to developing nations. The amendment still isn’t in effect, but some countries have taken major steps of their own accord to better curb the e-waste trade. The United States isn’t one of them.”
    • Europe has done a better job of restricting and regulating the trade
  • “But how should the recycling system work? What does a responsible world look like? When I ask Puckett, he gives a surprising answer. “Let’s put it this way: it’s not supposed to work,” he says. “This equipment was never designed to be recycled, which is why we have such problems.”
  • Total Reclaim company claimed they had being doing things ethically, but turns out they were using a third-party shipping company that sent LCD monitors overseas.
    • Total Reclaim sent more than 8 million pounds of flat screen monitors with mercury to Hong Kong, where, according to an EPA toxicologist report, workers were at risk of being poisoned. A worker even mentioned they had no idea that the cathode ray tubes were poisonous.
    • “The judge explained that if mercury-filled material was being handled the same way in the US, it would trigger a massive national outcry.”
  • Many recyclers export to save costs
  • US is the only developed country that has not ratified an international treaty to stop dumping e-waste in other countries

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